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Are we too late to save the elusive birds of New Britain?

New Britain's birds are among the least known to science. A group of researchers ventured into the island's unforgiving wilderness to find out how these species were coping with the loss of their forest. They found that some had adapted - but many more need urgent protection before it's too late.

Mount Tarvurvur, New Britain, Papua New Guinea, (© Taro Taylor )

Perched on the outer edge of the Malay Archipelago, and sheltered from the vast expanse of the Pacific only by the thin strip of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea’s New Britain boasts an impressive diversity of fauna and flora. The island’s volatile colonial and volcanic history have made it almost accustomed to upheaval. However, the most recent disturbance is to its forest landscape, with over 20% of its lowland forest being lost between 1989 and 2000. The culprits are palm oil plantations and industrial logging, which are threatening to turn New Britain’s rich biodiversity into a monoculture reflecting our consumerism – or worse, a barren, deforested wasteland.

New Britain and its satellite islands are of vital importance to 14 endemic bird species. And together with New Ireland, it forms an ‘Endemic Bird Area’ which is home to 38 restricted-range species. Despite the importance of this habitat and the ever-encroaching threat of its destruction, New Britain’s bird fauna is poorly understood and among the least known to science. A group of researchers ventured into this exotic and unforgiving wilderness to find out more, with the aim of updating the status of New Britain’s birds on the IUCN Red List.

The expedition was by no means your average trip to a Pacific paradise island; the team had to battle oppressive heat and humidity, two weeks of torrential rain and flooding, and even a case of malaria. This is without even mentioning the difficulty of actually finding the birds during over 400 hours of surveys.

Rob Davis, a member of the research team, explained that they had to spend two weeks “becoming familiar with the birds,” some of which few people have ever laid eyes on. He also stated that Papua New Guinea “is arguably the hardest place to see birds well,” not just due to the nearly impenetrable forest, but the fact that many birds are very wary thanks to a history of being shot at with slingshots.

Despite the impressive amount of time spent in the field and working with local guides, four of the key species were only recorded once, and the Golden Masked-owl and Bismarck Thicketbird (both classed as Vulnerable) remained elusive throughout the survey, with no records at all. Fortunately, the owl is now being spotted regularly at one site on the edge of an oil palm plantation, raising the hope that it can use degraded habitats for hunting, at the very least. The Thicketbird remains a mystery since the original specimens were taken in 1959.

Thankfully, the volcanic Mt. Tavurvur kept quiet, with just a few grumblings, and the team were well-fuelled for each day’s hike, claiming they “ate like kings.” With hard work and perseverance, they were able to survey vast amounts of forest habitat in what became the most extensive survey to date of the island’s bird fauna.

The Bismarck Thicketbird has never been spotted
since its first sighting in 1959

What was expected to be a depressing story of dwindling populations turned out to be a more positive one. Davis said “despite our expectations, a lot of species were doing better than we anticipated.” Six species were found to be less dependent on the old-growth forest than previously thought, and seemed to be using the palm oil plantations as a new habitat. This is a promising discovery. Coupled with the fact that the rate of lowland forest loss has slowed in recent years, it has led to the suggestion that seven species be reclassified on the IUCN Red List from ‘Near Threatened’ to ‘Least Concern.’

One such species, the Red-knobbed Imperial Pigeon – endemic to the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands – had the highest encounter rate of any species in the study. This species was actually found to be twice as abundant in the degraded forest than in the old-growth forest. However, logged forest and plantations may be far less suitable for breeding populations of species such as the Blue-eyed Cockatoo (Vulnerable), which depends on large, hollow-bearing trees unlikely to be found there.

New Britain’s other range-restricted bird species remain at levels of elevated concern, since they were found to be highly dependent on the diminishing original forest habitat. An example is the New Britain Goshawk, which is still listed as Vulnerable. It has been suggested that one species, the New Britain Kingfisher, should be re-classified from Near Threatened to Vulnerable. This was due to reduced population size estimates, with most birds being found in areas of lowland forest that are on the frontlines for exploitation by palm oil and logging projects.

The Blue-eyed Cockatoo depends on the large, hollow trees of untouched forest

While the overall rate of forest loss has slowed in New Britain over recent years – partially due to the main palm oil company beginning to address consumer concerns through its ‘zero deforestation’ commitment, and partially due to the much reduced availability of accessible forests to log – the threat of habitat destruction remains potent.

There has been an increase in helicopter use to reach formerly inaccessible areas for logging, and the forest is being fragmented bu new roads that carve their way through the precious habitat. One ongoing challenge is to revoke the allocation of vast areas of traditionally-owned forest for clear-felling and oil palm under the illegal ‘Special Agricultural Business Lease’ scheme.

20% of New Britain's lowland forest was lost between 1908 and 2000 (© Guy Dutson)

Due to past habitat loss and these emerging threats, the researchers call for urgent attention to be directed towards improving our understanding of the ecology of New Britain’s special birds, to find out more about how they’re adapting, or in other cases, failing to cope. This unprecedented survey has laid the foundations for the next generation of intrepid naturalists to venture out to the fringes of the Pacific to uncover Papua New Guinea’s secrets before it is too late.

 

13 February 2018

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